cover image Deep Green Sea

Deep Green Sea

Robert Olen Butler / Author Henry Holt & Company $23 (240p) IS

In many ways, the Vietnam War defined Butler's writing. His most vivid work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, has been set there. In this sensual, tremulous and darkly portentous novel, war veteran Ben Cole returns to Saigon to try to understand the source of his postwar emotional lethargy. When he meets Tien, the enchanting 26-year-old employee of a tourist company, both immediately (perhaps too quickly to be credible) feel a compelling sexual attraction. The narrative is composed of their alternating voices, each describing their lovemaking in slow motion and with erotic explicitness. These sexual idylls are interspersed with flashbacks to Ben's war experiences and Tien's anguished memories of her mother's desertion when the conflict ended in 1975. As a bar girl and prostitute who had serviced American soldiers, Tien's mother feared retribution; just before she disappeared, she revealed that Tien's father was an American. When Ben realizes that Tien might be a daughter he never knew existed, they decide to try to find Tien's mother in her native village. During their trip on Highway One, the narrative achieves resonance as both the past and present coalesce for Ben. The ending, laboriously foreshadowed, assumes the mantle of classical tragedy. Butler's keenly observed picture of a politically and economically transformed country, and his sensitive descriptions of Vietnamese culture and spiritual beliefs, provide a fine balance to the more overwrought sections of the narrative. The novel suffers from a surfeit of run-on prose in which both protagonists express their thoughts in virtually indistinguishable voices. Though Butler excels in expressing the sensual delights of an intense passion, this tale of star-crossed lovers would have profited from less focus on the bed and more on the continuing reverberations of the tragic legacy of a brutal war. 75,000 first printing; author tour. (Jan.) FYI: Stories from Butler's Tabloid Dreams are the basis of an HBO special to be aired next spring.